Klaus Music: Joey Arias & Kristian Hoffman

by Jim Provenzano

Bay Area Reporter

Monday October 21, 2013

The eerily wonderful pop-opera singer Klaus Nomi is long gone, but Joey Arias and Kristian Hoffman, his two close friends and collaborators, will return to the stage in a rare duo concert. "Lightning Strikes," a musical tribute to the man who "came from outer space to save the human race," plays at Feinstein's at the Nikko for one night only October 24 at 8pm.

In addition to a few Nomi songs, Lightning Strikes features a mix of 1970s rock anthems, popular standards, original material and Arias' signature 'channeling' of Billie Holiday. The show debuted in Los Angeles earlier this year and toured to Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle and New York. A European tour is being planned for early 2014 in conjunction with what would have been Nomi's 70th birthday.

I spoke with Arias when he was in London performing his solo show. Hoffman spoke separately via phone from his home city Los Angeles, where he was preparing for a concert with his own band.

"Kristian was the man who originally got Klaus to start a band," said Arias. "I knew him, and we were good friends. But at first, Klaus was just going to parties and singing arias. I wasn't even an opera fan. But I loved him and we had a great time."

With his oddly robotic gestures and iconic Kabuki make-up, Nomi grew to local fame in New York City at The New Wave Vaudeville Show, and soon became the toast of the downtown performance scene, most notably with his counter-tenor solo of the "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" aria from Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah.

"He was a hit, like some alien character," said Arias. "It was the beginning of New Wave and Klaus was doing a couple of club scenes."

"Kristian came up with this idea to do Max's Kansas City," said Arias. "Klaus had been working on some bands with people, but it hadn't worked out. So Kristian put this band together." They collaborated on some covers of old songs, and soon Nomi, with Hoffman's arrangements and Arias' style inspiration, became the talk of Lower Manhattan.

Arias made a splash early on after moving from Fayetteville with his family to Los Angeles, where he worked with the comedy troupe The Groundlings, and got other performing gigs.

Arriving in New York City after a cross-country trek with Kim Hastreiter (who would later cofound Paper magazine) Arias started off like many others, in retail - but not just any retail. The chic fashion boutique Fiorucci made good use of Arias' unique stylings, and his pal Nomi even participated in the window-dancing and then-unusual promotional efforts.

"I had dropped music and got involved with fashion, but then all of a sudden through Klaus I got back into performance," said Arias. His unique song stylings as Billie Holiday were at the time only performed for small intimate shows and for friends.

But then, rock icon David Bowie heard about Nomi and Arias, and asked them to sing back-up for his now-famous December 4, 1979 performance on Saturday Night Live. Generous to a fault, through three songs, Bowie both absorbed the duo's fashion sense, while possibly acknowledging their unique upstaging, along with a toy poodle with a television in its mouth. (See "The Man Who Sold the World," at www.vimeo.com/49104160, "Boys Keep Swinging" on YouTube, and "TVC 15" at www.vimeo.com/40895664).

From that night on, everything changed for Arias and Nomi.

"Everybody I knew in the world went bananas!" Arias laughed. "Of course Klaus was the diamond on the cherry of that evening. We went beyond whatever that show was all about. It was indefinable, like a trio of aliens that met up."

Greater success soon followed. Nomi recorded a few studio albums and a live album, which included Hoffman's arrangements of vintage pop songs like "Lightning Strikes, "Simple Man," an eerie take on Chubby Checkers' "The Twist," and a witty version of "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead."

Sadly, Nomi's rising star burned brightly yet all-too briefly. He died of AIDS in 1983, and is considered one of the first celebrities to succumb to the disease before the ensuing epidemic ravaged New York, San Francisco and the gay male community, among others.

How did Arias endure those years?

"You did what you did," he said bluntly. "Music changed, but people kept creating. You went out at night. People talked about events. There was no such thing as all this media that's going on."

It was one show that toured New York, which Arias saw, that would later bring him to even greater fame. Cirque du Soleil's first tour in 1988 fascinated the singer. His later friendships with trapeze artist Andrew Watson and filmmaker Bobby Sheehan led to an unusual job offer decades later.

"Bobby had become the creative director of shows for Cirque," said Arias. "They had finished one show and were getting ready to create a cabaret erotic show to premiere in Las Vegas, and he asked me if I was interested. He wanted Thierry Mugler to costume the show. I thought, 'That sounds sexy; it would be beyond anything I've done.'"

But with a demanding contract for one year of creation in Montreal, and a two-year performing run, Arias initially, and repeatedly, said no. He had his own evolving work, including his hit show Strange Fruit, which ran for more than a year at the Astor Theater.

"Then Bobby said, 'We can't do the show unless you're involved,' Arias recalled. "So then they got Mugler on board, and they called me for three months. Eventually, I got sucked into the machine."

Sexy and sensual, but not campy, Arias sang and performed as Mistress of Seduction in Cirque du Soleil's 2003 show "Zumanity."

With his tight corsets and gowns, "I came out looking like an insect," he recalled. "I had six costumes changes. People were shocked. It was intense. I sang all the time. I sang my ass off. I sang a lot. And I was really very dominant." Arias also co-wrote two of the show's songs.

And although he enjoyed Las Vegas, and working, the often restrictive nature of the company irked him.

"They would change the gay content for some shows," said Arias. "I kept asking in my renewal contract for more days off. I want to do a good show, and not miss any from exhaustion. But they thought that was too much."

After a long run, Arias left Vegas and returned to creatively remaking another show, Arias With a Twist, which he created and performed with puppeteer Basil Twist. The show ran in New York for six months, and toured San Francisco and other cities. Along with recurring performances of Lightning Strikes, fans can look forward to a biographical film of Arias, which is in development, and set to star Alan Cumming.

"Kristian is a fantastic director and creator," said Arias of his current and old time collaborator. "Unfortunately, this age kills a lot of fucking great artists. I literary cry almost every day, thinking about Klaus and others who've gone." Thus, the tribute show shares his love of Nomi, and he and Hoffman's mutual friendship.

Living Out Loud

Like Arias, Kristian Hoffman is also an accomplished musician on his own, with multiple albums, songs and collaborations. But he also shared the spotlight with another gay pop icon, Lance Loud.

As American TV audiences viewed the groundbreaking first reality show, "An American Family," the gay son of the tribe began his career in New York City with his band The Mumps, which Hoffman cofounded and served as songwriter and keyboardist. Hoffman’s other credits, including visual art, album cover designs and collaborations, read like a Who’s Who of alternative rock, and contemporary music (Rufus Wainwright, Deborah Harry, Lydia Lunch, X, Green Day and many others).

"At first, I had only heard Joey perform when he was a back up singer for Klaus 40 years ago," said Hoffman. "I loved hearing him sing with Klaus and as Billie Holiday. Lance and I lived in New York from 1970 to 1984. When Klaus and Joey were on Saturday Night Live, projects with me and Klaus were underway."

As the mid-1970s unleashed a volley of innovative music groups, Hoffman was at its epicenter. The Mumps start playing CBGBs in 1975.

"It all exploded around ’76 or ’77," said Hoffman. "I knew the producers of The New Wave Vaudeville Show. They asked me to be involved, and I wrote two theme songs, one about ’the new no wave’ style. We got every weirdo that we knew to be in the show. Ann Magnuson brought Klaus in."

The myth is that Nomi met Ann Magnuson in New York, Hoffman recalled. "She met him on a street in New York and asked him if he wanted to do something in their little talent show. He just climbed on top of a snowdrift and spontaneously burst into song. He just literally came out of nowhere."

Actually, he emigrated from Germany, but being the first counter-tenor to resemble a Weimar-era alien was pretty novel at the time.

The vaudeville show first opened in 1978. Klaus performed the Samson and Delilah aria to wild acclaim. (You can see the rare video footage from the show, featured in the documentary film The Nomi Song, on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4sMKzT1uME)

"For the first couple shows, it was fine," said Hoffman, "except the MC had to say that he was actually singing, not lip-synching. Then Anya Philips said I should make Klaus a band. We were so naïve at the time. He didn’t vet me or even find out about me, he just said ’okay.’"

Then earning a living as a pastry chef, Nomi was also known for his culinary skills, and the delicious cakes and pastries he brought to parties.

"You had New Wavers and Punkers, and Klaus shows up in the middle of a chaotic party with a dark chocolate Austrian torte. It was amazing."

With his incredible vocal range, and Hoffman knowing nothing about opera, the decision to arrange retro pop songs proved brilliant. "I was thinking about what would be funny for him to revive and it was the first thing that popped into my head. It set the template for the pop-opera sensibility."

He wrote "The Nomi Song" as a sort of announcement for the persona of Klaus Nomi (his real last name was Sperber). "When Bowie declared Ziggy Stardust, the character was fully formed," Hoffman explained. "We had to have a declarative song."

Hoffman recalled Nomi as a bit of a mystery. "Sometimes he’d play dumb and sometimes be so eloquent."

Graceful even through his declining health, Nomi nevertheless suffered greatly. "Since I was there through all of that stuff, I have very clear memories of how he was treated," said Hoffman. "AIDS was still called gay cancer and GRID. They didn’t know if it was airborne. People were scared. We didn’t know how you caught it. He got KS lesions. He even had it documented in a filmed interview."

But despite his openness, or because of it, Nomi’s record label halted any support. "His management completely cut him off," said Hoffman.

Hoffman doesn’t dwell on Nomi’s tragic demise. "I don’t think of that as the Klaus story. I like to think of him standing and in full bloom. He had so much more to give. I think ’Simple Man,’ for example, was light years away from what was going on in music at the time. He just never got the chance to continue."

Hoffman recalled Nomi as a truly dedicated performer. "Doing all these crazy performances, he just was that guy; the crazy clothes, and counter-tenor singing. At that time, his opera trainer told him he’d never have a career."

Hoffman’s close friend Lance Loud also succumbed to AIDS, in 2000. Could such performers rise to fame in this day and age? Hoffman mentioned his work with the talent show sensation Prince Poppycock, a dandy variation on Nomi’s style. And he’s even met musicians who want to perform old Mumps songs.

Hoffman compared New York then to its contemporary version of the ultra-rich shutting out artists. At the beginning of their own creative jump start, "New York was bankrupt, and since it was bankrupt, every artist who wanted to meet Andy Warhol got to go there," Hoffman said. "The migration of artists from small towns and Europe made this magic city that had been abandoned by white flight. I would walk out my door and be asked to be in a movie or a concert. By the middle of the ascendance of CBGBs, I began to comprehend how precious it all was."

Today, the rarity of experiencing art has become so commodified and recorded, spontaneity has been lost. "Nobody has to travel, or earn an experience any more," he said. "No one has to discover."

And yet, Hoffman remains optimistic. "There’s always gonna be a revolution that we might miss. There’s gonna be some next step."

Joey Arias and Kristian Hoffman perform Lightning Strikes at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, Thursday, October 24, 8pm. $25-$35. Cocktails and small-plate food available. 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063. www.ticketweb.com

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